Friday, January 22, 2010

The Point of Grace

Mark Galli has posted another thought-provoking article in Christianity Today about how our desires for God to transform us and the world may be masking a real desire for our own alleviation of discomfort at our own sin or sin in the world. This, he argues, is not God-love but self-love which taints even our desire to repent of sin and seek God and his will. Often in Presbyterian liturgies I've heard prayers confessing that we ought to "repent of our repentance." This made sense to me only so far as I thought it was about repenting of any sort of pious effort to gain God's mercy, but Galli's article puts a slightly different, clarifying spin on this notion.*

This leaves me to think about two questions:
1) Why do I desire transformation in my life/his life/her life/the world? Is it because such would truly bring greater honor and pleasure to God my King? Or is it because it would make my life better? In view of my last post, I have to ask: Do I truly hate what is going on in my students' lives because it grieves God, or is it because it's causing them to fail my class and act out, making my job more difficult and not validating me as a competent teacher?

2) When I seek God, confess my sins, and ask for his Holy Spirit to fill me, upon what do I place my hope for salvation and change? The right mindset is that when the day is done, no matter what I may feel, desire, or do, if God isn't gracious to me and the Incarnation and the Cross and the Resurrection aren't true, I'm dead. God alone must save. And he does!
*By the way, in case you're confused after reading this or Galli's article, please do not misread me. I do not believe that our confession of sin and our seeking of God is for nought, nor that human will and action profits nothing before God. The biblical testimony is that God's saving mercy is upon those who turn and cling to him as their sole hope and surety. Galli's point is that we can't find any comfort in our own repentance or sickness of ourselves; our comfort is alone in the God who saves and in his Cross.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In the Power of the Evil One

This year at my high school has been a real eye-opener. Teaching in general has shown me that my home life and family situation as a child was far better than most average kids' in America. But even more so, my new school is giving me an education. Sadly, I hate what I'm learning, and the past few days have nearly brought me to tears.

1) Richmond may not be Chicago's South Side, but it can be a violent place. We have fights at least weekly, if not several days per week. Last week a female student of mine clawed up another girl. There was blood on the sidewalk, along with tufts of weave. It was nasty. Then on Tuesday after lunch, outside my classroom a girl slapped a guy, who responded by straight up punching her in the face/head. She collapsed to the pavement. Kids are constantly talking about solving problems through violence. "Shut up or I'll punch you in the face" is actually pretty common. I also recently overheard, "She ain't no friend to you; she ain't shit to you. You should go beat the shit outta her and put her in her place." A few of my students even stayed late after school devising a plan for what to do if one of them got shot or hurt while walking home.

2) A student in my seventh period biology class, A.G., moved down from New Jersey, where her brother was shot and killed a few years back. Her teenage sister was also stabbed to death by another girl in 2008. I found out last night that A.G. was listed on the Virginia Missing Persons Registry, having gone missing back in March.

3) Today P.A., a student in my fourth period biology class, came in with no backpack and had his head down on the desk all day. (He usually is eager to share the latest baseball news with me.) I asked him if anything was wrong, and he wrote these words on a sheet of paper:


What he did next startled me: He pulled back his sleeve to reveal about ten parallel razor cuts on his right forearm. I told him that whatever tough stuff he was going through, he didn't have to go through it alone, and this surely wasn't the solution. I assured him that I am a safe person to talk with and that I really care for him.

4) I have had a few students this year who were temporarily homeless and moving every few days or weeks. I also have had three students in foster care who switched foster parents during this year, which really messed them up. A few others entered my class late, having spent the earlier part of the year in juvenile detention.

As if all this weren't enough, tons of my students are failing. It's literally--and psychologists and social workers will corroborate this--that students are trying to fail. If they have positive expectations and actually try to reach them, yet do not succeed, they feel like a failure. So why not just not try? That way, failure won't reflect poorly on their ability. Failure will just be a result of not trying. Other students act out in class in order to try to provoke me to anger or to get kicked out of class so that they can say, "I failed because Mr. Hall got mad at me and kicked me out of class," thereby placing the locus of blame outside of themselves (or so they reckon).

If they're not failing, then many are stuck in a morass of hopelessness. They have few goals in life or dreams of what they could be and do after high school, and at this point many are too far behind to reach those goals. All they can do is hope to experience a little pleasure and approval today and get through the day. If they can, then that's a success. With their perspectives so out of whack, degradation and banality reign: new shoes, Lil' Wayne, sex, gold-covered teeth ("fronts"), sex, Gucci Man, cell phones, sex.

The Apostle John wrote that "the whole world lies in the power of the evil one" (1 John 5:19). Sadly I see every day that this is true. It nearly crushes me some days to see the hopelessness of these kids' lives--kids who are otherwise bright and longing for love and meaning and approval. They and their world have fallen so far from the glory of God and from wholeness and shalom, the abundant life which God desires for them. When Jesus came to Lazarus's tomb at Bethany and saw the devastating, life-erasing effects of sin and death, he was "deeply moved [or indignant] in his spirit and greatly troubled" (John 11:33). Some days I feel his same indignation in my soul over how messed up these great kids are, yet I wonder: What can I, as one person, do about this so late in the game?

Will you do the one thing that can make a difference and join me in praying in Jesus' name for my students and all the millions of others like them?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

So That the Blind Will See

Why did Jesus come? It's a question often asked at this Christmastide. (The celebration of Epiphany on January 6 is the twelfth and final day of Christmas on the traditional church calendar.) Among the myriad statements in the Gospels, particularly in John's, one answer directly from Jesus is this: "For judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind" (John 9:39).

At first glance this seems super harsh. And it is. Jesus said that he has come "for judgment" so that the spiritual elitists who think that by their own wisdom they have a corner on God will never really come to a full, savory knowledge of God. In this passage Jesus is directly rebuking the Pharisees who are far more children of Satan than of God (John 8:41-47). This is, after all, why they are "blind" to who Jesus really is in the first place; their god and father has blinded them (see 2 Corinthians 4:4).*

But the judgment of which Jesus speaks is in fact a miracle of compassion on a sinful world blinded by Satan. As his death was at hand, Jesus spoke again of the judgment he would bring. "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:31-32). His royal judgment is in fact on Satan and his deceptive powers to which mankind has succumbed for eons. But no more! Jesus longs so fully for his people, sinful and wandering as they are, to see "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" and "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6). The very revelation of God which Jesus brings through his judgment is that of his mercy, compassion, and reconciling love. But the goal is not a flourish of emotion or a "divine romance." It is Jesus' passion to open our eyes to God's glory and magnitude and worth, so that we might find our greatest delight and wonder in who God is and gladly entrust our lives to him as our Good Shepherd. And if this is so, will he not gladly do so both for us and for others, for whom we pray and with whom we share the gospel? Lord, help my unbelief!

*I think it's highly ironic to read this in conjunction with John 9:1-2. "As he [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'" The Pharisees too were blind from birth to the truth of God which they, as God's covenant people, had abundantly received ("those who see . . . "). This blindness comes from being one in nature with their own God-hating father, the devil (8:44). Both they and their parent had sinned, that they were born blind!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Questions for the New Year

Tim Challies posted a link to Donald Whitney's "Ten Questions for the New Year." I know that without frequently slowing down and stepping back from my own day-to-day life, it's easy for me to just go through each day without much thought. But keeping in mind the future (see the previous post) and the goal of our lives, "to glorify God, and enjoy him forever" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q & A 1), I think it's good and necessary to evaluate our lives and not "run aimlessly," but purposefully (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

Below are Whitney's ten questions, with my own preliminary responses. (Twenty more can be found at the link above.)

1. What's one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?
I want to grow in being hospitable and openly generous with my time, space, and money. I think the more we ween ourselves from our own needs and concerns and trust God to be open to others, really reveals to us his great provision and builds in us his heart for others.

2. What's the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?
I would continue teaching at HHS and to rely upon God's unfailing love to sustain me in the "famine" that teaching there can often be or feel like (Psalm 33:19).

3. What's the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?
Make consistent prayer time a priority with Olivia. We started off really strongly in that but have faded as life's busyness built up.

4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?
Praising God through music, poetry, and writing -- I do not sing hymns or praise songs much outside of corporate worship, and I feel like doing this would bring much more joy, rest, and contentment to my life.

5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?
Ha! This is probably blogging and stuff on the Internet. We'll no longer have cable, so that probably won't be a big distraction.

6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?
Along with Olivia, I want to establish stronger relationships with people at our church and simply get into people's lives and sharpen one another with God's Word (Proverbs 27:17) to find practical, tangible ways we can walk out of sin and into the God-glorifying freedom and hope of the gospel. We want especially to do this through having a generous, open home.

7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?
My brother Jordan and some of my co-workers.

8. What's the most important way you will, by God's grace, try to make this year different from last year?

9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?
Set aside a small amount of time each day, both with my wife and alone, in order to develop the consistency I once had; and keep a list of others' needs to keep from focusing on myself alone.

10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Back from the Future

As 2009 came to an end and the new year came, I found myself also reading about the end of "this present evil age" and the beginning of the fullness of "the age to come"--that is, I read through Revelation.* One thing that strikes me about this book is that in it God reveals history's (read: His story's) end even while we're yet living in the midst of it. It's often said that we're on a "spiritual journey" or that "life is a story to be discovered," or "take up the pen and write your own story." Even the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke urges us to "live the questions now" so that perhaps "someday far in the future, you will gradually . . . live your way into the answer" (Letters to a Young Poet, 4). But God, however, has already given us the destination and the resolution. Revelation calls us to live with the future certain and clear: The Lamb who was slain is really the victorious King of kings and Lord of lords. He triumphs over all that is evil and selfish and impure, and he alone holds the keys to a blessed, joyful future of peace and gladness in the presence of God. We know that Good (God and his church) wins and Evil (Satan, the world, and fallen human desires opposed to God) loses. The question becomes, as frequently begged in Revelation, Whose side will you be on? Will you be one who, with Christ, overcomes?

The Bible is chock full of eschatology, the teaching about the "last things." Knowing the end from our place in the middle of the story ought to be an amazing thing. We're able to live backwards from the future and choose our side right now. We learn that if we choose by acts of our will an unrepentant way of life that is self-seeking, impure, lustful, and insubordinate to God, then nothing but unmitigated suffering is stored up for us. But we also learn that if by submission to Jesus we "wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb" (7:14; 22:14) and long for holiness, purity, and righteousness--living out what the Holy Spirit works within us as we are united to Christ by faith--then we will find everlasting refreshment, peace, and joy in God.

Of course, the story ends with a wedding feast, the great celebration in which Christ the Bridegroom is joined to his Bride, the church (19:7-8; 21:2). If our future as baptized Christians is in union and fellowship with Christ as in a marriage, then what is today but our time of engagement and devoted preparation? St. Paul picked up on this when he warned the Corinthian church that "I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:2-3).

During the months of my engagement to Olivia before our wedding, we knew with utmost concern that we had to remain pure. We knew that any sort of stumbling during the engagement would be devastating and costly enough to us, and grievous to God. But it was really the hope of having the most possible freedom and enjoyment on our wedding day and of preparing for a lifetime of marriage that drove us to watchfulness, patience, and self-control. And it was so worth it! If that was for a "mere" human marriage that serves mainly to purify one another for the Day of Christ, then how much more should we concern ourselves with the Wedding Day to come! If I found so much happiness and rejoicing in the love of our mutual dedication to one another for our own earthly marriage, how much more wonderful and amazing will be our delight in Christ if we devote ourselves wholly to him?


*I am not saying that Revelation is strictly future-oriented and that all within it or within the Kingdom of God awaits the future. Certainly the gospel message is that in Jesus Christ the kingdom (reign) of God (basileia theou) has already come to this world and is beginning to beat back the darkness of sin and the evil one. I also believe that Revelation is probably best understood as several different images about the span of history from the New Testament era through time to the final Judgment, the Day of the Lord.